TIME faith

How Advent Can Help Us Embrace the True Spirit of Christmas

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Sharon E. Watkins is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

It's a season when the sacred and the secular awkwardly collide and good will and generosity struggle with crass consumerism

Boy, do I need Advent this year!

I need a respite from the commercial “Christmas season”–where the sacred and the secular collide and are awkwardly entangled for weeks, where good will and generosity struggle with crass consumerism, and where the birth of love into the world is reduced to “Jingle Bells.”

My soul seeks the quieter depths of Advent, the Church’s four-week season of preparation leading up to Christmas. I need it this year more than most, because the world seems to be going a little out of control. Ebola, Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria, outrage over the deaths of unarmed citizens in our own streets, the inability of our elected leaders to even talk reasonably about solutions–all of these things worry me; buying gifts and eating Christmas goodies don’t distract enough.

Advent calls for the opposite of distraction. Scriptures of the season speak openly of the world’s agony. They foresee even worse days ahead. They call us to look, clear-eyed, at the world – to acknowledge the pain. They call us to wake up!

And then with eyes open, in Advent, we begin to have reason to hope. “Comfort, oh, comfort my people,” reads the scripture. God does not intend the world to live in pain, but rather to find wholeness. We hear scripture’s call on us to be the hope. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me… he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

In the reflective space of Advent, my distraction finds focus beyond the headlines. I see young people demonstrating to improve our justice system, and I see churches providing safe spaces for them. I see that an Ebola vaccine is nearly ready for testing. I see the many people of God joining to address hunger and poverty. I remember sometimes our greatest social trials lead to our most significant social advances. I start to feel the rekindling of new possibilities, and a call to be part of that movement–a challenge to become myself as evidence of God’s goodness and beauty and love at work to bring wholeness out of the chaos.

During Advent we light candles. They are a small light in the darkness. But when the darkness is especially intense, a small light shines all the brighter. Advent focuses me on those bits of light. It prepares me for the sacred celebration of Christmas–the welcoming of God’s love born into the world as a child, a small vulnerable child who changes the world through us when we pick up his challenge of love.

I need Advent to remind me to look for signs of that love. I need its call to join with others to be that sign. Boy, do I need Advent this year!

Sharon E. Watkins is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. She was the first woman to lead a mainline denomination in the U.S., and has served on the Advisory Council of the White House’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Watkins is the author of Whole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World, and holds a doctoral degree from Phillips Theological Seminary and Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

10 Songs That Ruin Christmas Every Single Time

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Expectations run high for seasonal tunes and these just don't make it up there

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On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Some grating, tedious songs that get stuck in your brain like a tiny piece of caramel corn in your teeth; like flecks of glitter that you’ll NEVER get out of the carpet; like a tiresome metaphor that some blogger just can’t let go.

Anyway. My grandmother hated “The 12 Days of Christmas.” She was a gentle soul. She loved most people and never wanted much excitement in her life and I rarely saw her fired up about anything. But man, she hated that song, A LOT. So of course we sang it to her always.

Sure, it’s a terrible song. But it is not THE worst thing out there in Christmas music. The thing is—there is bad music all the year round. Why is it that bad Christmas music is so especially, terribly, mind-meltingly BAD?

Maybe it’s because Christmas music, on the whole, is supposed to be so very GOOD. When the angel appeared to Mary, she sang in response. We call it “The Magnificat,” and it contains some of the most powerful and prophetic words in scripture. And then, those angels showed up and sang to the shepherds on the hillside. Good news! Great joy! We can only assume that was a hella good concert.

So we can’t help it if our expectations are high when it comes to seasonal tunes. It’s biblical. We want good news! We want great joy!

Somewhere along the line, Hollywood and Dollywood got hold of our Christmas soundtrack, and it was all downhill from there. Granted, some of the results are deeply meaningful (good news). Others, just plain fun (Great joy!). And what makes Christmas music good or bad is not as simple as sacred or secular designation. Because the Muppets and John Denver, y’all…that is great joy. And some of the worst are songs that are supposed to be sacred, but really just make you want to club an elf over the head with a giant candy cane.

Here are the Ten Songs that Ruin Christmas, every single time.

1. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause. Nobody cares, kid. Guess what, IT’S YOUR DAD in the Santa suit. I hate to ruin that for you, but you’re a little creeper who should go back to bed.

2. I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas. Otherwise known as LeAnn Rimes and her bedazzled microphone make baby Jesus cry.

3. O Holy Night. Which really was an O.K. song until Josh Groban, Celine Dion, and Clay Aiken got ahold of it and each, respectively, stretched every syllable into three and butchered the high notes like a Christmas ham.

4. Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. It’s one thing to torture your grandma with annoying Christmas tunes. It’s another thing entirely to celebrate her yuletide demise. Also, who let her drink so much? And then try to walk home in a blizzard? I’m starting to feel like the best grandchild ever.

5. Rocking Around the Christmas Tree/ Most Wonderful Time of the Year/Holly Jolly Christmas. I lumped these together because they are equally terrible in the same kind of way. Christmassy words set nonsensically to music does not a Christmas song make. Maybe it WAS the most wonderful time of year, until y’all started singing this awful mess. And also, who tells scary ghost stories at Christmas? WRONG HOLIDAY.

6. Baby It’s Cold Outside. When people first started calling this the date rape song, I said, “Nonsense,” and thought they were over-reacting. But as more and more attention has been called to rape culture, especially on college campuses, that whole “Hey, what’s in this drink?” thing gets hard to ignore. Also, just because it says ‘cold’ or ‘snow’ or ‘winter’ does not mean it’s a Christmas song. (Somebody tell that to the people who put “My Favorite Things” in the holiday rotation.)

7. Last Christmas. So you’re having a lovely December day of shopping and sipping cocoa and visiting the elderly and then WHAM! This business comes on your radio and you are suddenly in elf-clubbing mode again. I’ll give it to someone special, alright… With my fist.

8. Wonderful Christmastime. Not only does this song ruin Christmas, it almost ruins Paul McCartney. Thank goodness for the redeeming qualities of “Hey Jude.” Which is really more of a Christmas song than Wonderful Christmastime, if you think about it. Meanwhile, someone should take THIS sad song and make it better.

9. Do They Know It’s Christmastime. (Sigh.) Yes, we are ever so mindful of the poor. But to thank God it’s “Them instead of you” is sort of missing the whole Baby Jesus POINT of things.

And, by popular demand…

10. Christmas Shoes. Listen, it’s great that you want to buy those gold shoes for the kid with the dying mom. I’m all for generosity, Christmas time or elsewise. But… a) it’s cheesy, and manipulative. This song tries to make me feel feelings that I don’t have for pretend people, maybe because my heart is 3 sizes too small. And b) it embodies some hard Advent-y realities… Like the truth that we’d rather serve the dying than the living. Or to put it another way: we too often place our faith in ‘meeting Jesus someday,’ rather than living in the impossible paradox of his coming incarnation. We look to a far-off heaven, rather than trying to prepare a place in our midst for the poor, the stranger, or the vulnerable child.

And maybe that’s why so much of our holiday music is so straight up terrible. Because it’s been used to create a deceptively comfortable, cozy environment. In which to shop. When in fact, all is neither calm nor bright. For all its tinsel and shine, the world is not as it should be. And we are partly to blame.

What? I told you my heart was 3 sizes too small…you wanted something uplifting?

How about this: Love is on the way. Hope still sings to us in the night, and joy comes in the morning. There are songs for that, too. GOOD songs. With Muppets. Maybe that’s next week’s list.

Until then — sing on, y’all.

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, Kansas. This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

This Is What Hanukkah Is All About. Hint: It Was a Near-Death Experience

Table Set For Hanukkah
A Hanukkah table in the 1950s Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Though Hanukkah now is a Jewish counterpart to the Christian holiday of Christmas, it commemorates Judaism’s bare survival of an attempt to obliterate it by a Hellenistic king

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This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Though Hanukkah now is a Jewish counterpart to the Christian holiday of Christmas, it commemorates Judaism’s bare survival of an attempt to obliterate it by a Hellenistic king, Antiochus the fourth. It is a holiday marking Judaism’s near miraculous survival of trauma, a trauma that left a permanent mark on both the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

The time was the late 170’s BCE (BCE is a secular equivalent to BC), and the land of Israel was ruled by a Hellenistic king, Antiochus the Fourth. Antiochus ruled the Seleucid Empire of lands on the Eastern Mediterranean. The Romans to the West were on the rise, and Antiochus’ kingdom was financially broke from paying high tribute to the Romans after a military loss to them. Though the Seleucid kings had permitted the Jews to practice their ancestral customs, Antiochus’ need for money made him offer the high priesthood of the Jerusalem temple to the highest bidder.

In 172 BCE Antiochus sold the high priesthood to an unsavory character, Menelaus, an advocate for Hellenistic reforms who was not a member of the priestly family. Menelaus soon outraged the local populace by plundering the temple treasury for money to pay the high tribute that he had promised Antiochus. When the populace revolted against Menelaus, Antiochus restored him to power and issued a decree forbidding observance of Jewish laws in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. According to the books of Maccabees, Jews were forced to offer a sacrifice to foreign gods, Torah scrolls were burned, mothers who had allowed their babies to be circumcised were killed with their children. Anyone with a copy of a Torah scroll was executed, and leading citizens were required, on pain of death, to eat pork in public, thus openly disobeying the Torah’s commands. Judaism was faced with a life and death struggle for its continued existence.

The people of Israel had faced crises before, but never such a direct challenge to their religious practices. The Mesopotamia-based Assyrian empire had destroyed towns and dominated Jerusalem for decades. The Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem and took many of its leading citizenry into extended exile in Babylon. But no one before Antiochus IV tried so hard to eradicate Jewish Torah observance and monotheism.

Faced with the choice of “eat pig or die,” Jews responded in different ways. Some went ahead and ate some pork or offered the required sacrifices to foreign gods. Others are said to have fled to the barren wilderness to avoid the persecution. Still others openly defied the law and were killed outright. For example, the book of 2 Maccabees (chapters 6-7) tells of the killing of an elderly scribe, Eleazar and also of seven brothers with their mother.

Still others chose to fight. Around 168 BCE, a provincial priestly family, the Hasmoneans (also known as “the Maccabees”), began a guerrilla operation against the armies of Antiochus. They scored repeated successes against a Seleucid army weakened by problems in other parts of the empire. Within a few years, in 164 BCE, the Hasmoneans had fought the Seleucids to a draw. Antiochus IV issued a decree rescinding his prohibition of Judaism:

King Antiochus to the senate of the Jews and to the other Jews, greeting. If you are well, it is as we desire. We also are in good health. Menelaus has informed us that you wish to return home and look after your own affairs. Therefore those who go home by the thirtieth day of Xanthicus will have our pledge of friendship and full permission for the Jews to enjoy their own food and laws, just as formerly, and none of them shall be molested in any way for what he may have done in ignorance. [2 Macc 11:27-31]

Later that year, in December of 164, the leader of the Hasmoneans at the time, Judah Maccabee, retook Jerusalem, trapped the Seleucid forces in the fortress there, and purified the temple of the non-Yahwistic cult. The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates this event, and the Hasmonean royal-priestly family was known by Judah’s nickname, “the hammer” (Maccabee) up to the present day.

Hanukkah celebrates the first decisive victory in the story of Jewish resistance to Greek persecution, but the struggle would leave lasting marks on Judaism and on the Hebrew Scriptures that Jews and Christians share. Eventually the Hasmoneans ended the rule of the Greek Seleucids over Palestine and established their own monarchy based in Judaism.

The Jews triumphed, but the trauma of near-annihilation at the hands of the Greeks left its mark. The Hanukkah resistance struggle gave birth to the Jewish idea of martyrdom that was then expanded in Christianity and became a major theme in Islam as well. This was the time that a fundamental division between “Jew” and “Greek” developed that had not existed before, a perceived hostility between Greek ways of thought and Hebrew traditions.

This may also have been the time when the idea of clearly-defined Hebrew “scripture” developed. The Greeks already had a defined set of educational writings that marked an educated “Greek,” focused on Homer’s epics above all and additional authors from the classical period of Greek literature, e.g. Herodotus, Plato and Euripides. The post-Hanukkah Hasmonean kingdom is the time when we first see signs of the development of a Hebrew counterpart to this Greek curriculum. This Hebrew Bible was focused on Torah first and foremost (rather than Homer) and a set of prophetically-inspired books from the time before Greek rule and the “end of prophecy” (1 Maccabees 9:27). This Hebrew Bible, the basis for the Christian “Old Testament,” was an anti-Greek Bible formed in the wake of hellenistic trauma.

Not every Jewish group immediately adopted such a standardized, defined set of holy scriptures. Throughout centuries, Israelites had worked with a looser idea of holy scripture, and this idea of a more fluid set of writings continued in later Jewish groups, such as the Qumran/Dead Sea community around the time of the Hasmoneans and the early Christians a bit later. The apocalyptic book of Enoch, for example, is still cited as scripture in the Christian scriptural writing of Jude (Jude 14). But as Roman trauma followed Greek trauma, this clearly defined Hebrew Bible of 24 books became the established Bible of rabbinic Judaism, and a model for the Christian New Testament of the early church. Before the trauma of the near-death of Judaism at the hands of Antiochus the fourth there was no such thing. Hanukkah marked the beginning of the biblical age.

David Carr, Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, which was just published by Yale University Press.

TIME Foreign Policy

How Pope Francis Helped Broker Cuba Deal

Pope Attends His Weekly Audience In St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis on Dec. 3, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in negotiating a more open policy on Cuba and the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from Cuban custody.

In a 15-minute speech announcing that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, Obama said that the pope helped spur the change and personally thanked him. The Vatican then released a statement noting that the Vatican hosted delegations from both countries in October to negotiate the deal after Pope Francis had written to both leaders.

A senior administration official said that the appeal from the Pope was “very rare” and unprecedented.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” said the official. “The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

American officials have also noted Francis’ deep familiarity with the Americas, being the first pope from the continent. The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” a white House official said. “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discuss.”

The move is perhaps Pope Francis’ boldest foreign policy move yet, but it is not his first.

• He showed letter-writing prowess in September 2013, when he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 Summit which Obama was attending, urging world leaders and the United States to oppose a military intervention in Syria.

• After visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May, Pope Francis hosted both Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for a joint prayer service for Middle East Peace.

• When he visited South Korea in August, he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the papal plane crossed into Chinese airspace—a historic step toward improved relations since the last time a pope visited East Asia, Chinese officials did not allow the plane to fly over Chinese territory.

When it comes to Cuba, Pope Francis is continuing the work of his predecessors. Just over half the Cuban population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and the Vatican stepped up its relations with the country over the past two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012. At an outdoor mass, he urged Cuba to “build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

The announcement of the Vatican’s role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations is particularly noteworthy as Pope Francis plans his first trip to the United States in September 2015. The Vatican has not said whether or not Pope Francis will travel to Cuba or other US cities on that trip.

TIME faith

Meet the Church of England’s First Ever Female Bishop

Reverend Libby Lane poses for pictures during a photo call following the announcement naming her first woman bishop by The Church of England, after a historic change in its rules, in Stockport, northwest England, on Dec. 17, 2014.
Reverend Libby Lane poses for pictures during a photo call following the announcement naming her first woman bishop by The Church of England, after a historic change in its rules, in Stockport, northwest England, on Dec. 17, 2014. Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images

In a historic move, Reverend Libby Lane is the first woman in England to be named a bishop

The Church of England’s stained-glass ceiling has been smashed at last.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Elizabeth Lane was named as the first female bishop in the Church of England, just a month after the church made a change to its canon law to allow female bishops. Beginning on Jan. 26, Lane will serve as Bishop of Stockport, an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Chester.

The Church of England first allowed female priests in 1992 and the battle to have female bishops began shortly after. Female bishops are already common in the Anglican churches in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, but in the Church of England traditionalists argued that only men should serve in the role of bishops, claiming it was sanctioned by scripture. Others argued that allowing female bishops was ethical and necessary to keep the church relevant. In July, the church’s legislative body, known as the General Synod, voted to allow female bishops and formally enacted a change to canon law in late November.

So who is the woman who will be the Church of England’s first female bishop?

Lane — who goes by “Libby” — was ordained as a deacon in 1993 and a priest in 1994 after being educated at the University of Oxford and trained for ministry at Cranmer Hall, a theological college at Durham University in north-east England. Since 2010 she has been the Dean of Women in Ministry for the diocese of Chester, a post created to support other women within the church. As a bishop’s selection advisor since 2003, she has spent the last ten years making recommendations to the church about candidates offering themselves for ordination.

Speaking at a town hall on Wednesday in Stockport, Lane said that it was a “remarkable day for me and a historic day for the Church.” She continued: “On this historic day as the Church of England announces the first woman nominated to be bishop I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has backed the push for women bishops. He issued a statement about Lane’s appointment on Wednesday, saying: “Her Christ-centered life, calmness and clear determination to serve the Church and the community make her a wonderful choice. She will be bishop in a diocese that has been outstanding in its development of people, and she will make a major contribution.”

Lane’s appointment, which was approved by the Queen, was also endorsed by the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who congratulated Lane in a statement on Wednesday, saying: “This is an historic appointment and an important step forward for the Church towards greater equality in its senior positions.”

While Lane’s appointment is being lauded as a moment of progress, the church still has a way to go until it reaches gender equality. As the Guardian reports: “About half of female clergy are unpaid. They are also less likely to hold senior positions… [and] only three of the 44 English cathedrals are run by women today and the overwhelming majority of female clergy are not running their own parishes.”

But having a woman bishop is a significant first step. For her part, Lane seems to believe her new role could lead to further appointments for women, telling the Telegraph: “Today I pray will not be simply about one woman called up a new ministry in the church but much more than that, an opportunity to acknowledge all that has gone before and to look ahead to what is still to be done.” It’s that resolve to look to the future that allows other women to believe Lane won’t be the Church of England’s only female bishop.

TIME Culture

I Love This Multicultural Holiday Sweater

Pia Glenn
Courtesy of Pia Glenn

The “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd is shaking angry fists at the Internet sky and asking their web browsers, "Is nothing sacred anymore?"

xojane

So-called ugly Christmas sweaters have been a holiday mainstay, both unintentionally (I see you, Great Aunt Hyacinth), and ironically (I see you too, festive hipsters throwing your theme party in your communal artists’ space).

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that extends to our casual knitwear as well, let’s call them novelty Christmas sweaters. And let’s look specifically at this “multicultural” Christmas Jumper from the Leicester, U.K.-based company that is straightforwardly called British Christmas Jumpers.

I’m sure you know that what the U.K. calls “jumpers” we call “sweaters,” but did you know that this particular sweater has many across the Atlantic hopping and spitting mad? Neither did I, until it was brought to my attention. And even after it was, I was still a bit taken aback. I generally try not to quantify the outrage of those whose views I may not share, but in this case, I’m crying foul.

This sweater, now available here in the U.S., has been referred to as “a blasphemous monstrosity,” a sign that “Political Correctness Really HAS Gone Mad” and “a real turkey,” which is a scathing insult if ever I’ve heard one! [clutches pearls]

Slightly more forgiving online and Twitter comments have included such declarations as “By trying to represent everything you end up representing nothing at all,” while a whole host of people saw fit to simply post hideously elaborate riffs on basic Islamophobia.

The official statement from the company, printed right next to the sweater on the ordering page, is that “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist — something that brings people from all walks of life together in the spirit of love, joy, and festive cheer. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season — however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Those MONSTERS!

In sorting through the U.K.’s sweater rage, I didn’t want to stop at the one statement on the British Jumper Company’s online catalog, so I reached out to them and got more details via e-mail. They told me that in setting out to create a design that would “reflect modern culturally diverse populations, they chose the top six religions in the world: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism. Then we chose Taoism for its philosophy and message of harmony, the Peace Symbol as a modern symbol of unity, and the Science Atom to include those who have their belief in Science.”

I learned that British Christmas Jumpers is a family business, founded by an Indian couple who arrived in Britain in 1981 during the race riots. The founders’ two sons are now involved in the business, both of whom were born in the United Kingdom and raised in a Hindu family but went to a Christian school. This is a family that has experienced cross-cultural faith-based interpersonal relations, and lives in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.K., infusing one of their products with the diversity that they live.

My first thought in reading about the furor was that we found ourselves at the intersection of secularism and semantics here. Take the word Christmas out of the proceedings, and you’ve got yourself a Multicultural Sweater …oooohh, but wait, there’s a row of Christmas trees occupying prime visual real estate, so it’s clearly a Christmas-based situation. And the name of the company that makes them has “Christmas” right there in the middle, so they’re clearly making sweaters for the Christmas season. Period. I wanted to give the people who are furious the linguistic benefit of the doubt, like it was just the word that was the problem, because the pious superiority, ethnic prejudice, and hateful bias I was reading surely had to have some stronger root cause than the close proximity of the symbols of multiple faiths on a sweater.

Sadly, no. The “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd is pissed, shaking angry fists at the Internet sky and asking their web browsers, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” The Islamophobes are worked up because…I guess because they think like the screenwriters of mid-’80s straight-to-video action movies, and such limited thinking tends to keep the hateful worked up.

And the non-religious are up in arms because political correctness is ruining the world!

Guess what? I’m religious and also against being PC just for PC’s sake, and I still need these folks to have a seat, preferably in something that reclines. I check my religious privilege every time I write about it, because I feel lucky to have been born into a faith that is extremely progressive while honoring certain traditions that have enriched my life. (Episcopalian, or Anglican as it’s sometimes called.) When I was a teenager, my mother’s significant mental illness manifested itself partly as extreme zealotry that was abusive, but I still found solace in the faith in which I was raised and the people at various churches I’ve attended throughout my life.

I’ve had chunks of time when my faith dimmed and I didn’t attend services, I’ve been the disruptive dissenter challenging the clergy, and I’ve also spent time exploring Buddhism. It is not my intention to preach to you, but to emphasize my personal horror at seeing such vile hatred couched as religion as I’ve seen against this sweater — for me, the call is coming from inside the house!

I’m so grateful that I was taught that “[Anglicans] listen carefully to everyone, search for wisdom everywhere, take seriously the secular world and its work, and recognize that contemporary knowledge is not necessarily in conflict with faith and indeed may offer wisdom.” So while it may follow naturally that I would see a Star of David so near a cross and not be concerned that we’re all gonna burn from crossing the streams, I still wish that so many other Christians didn’t perpetuate this narrow-minded foolishness. Such ugliness begs the question of who’s really “ruining” Christmas.

Today, I’m religious enough and also pedantic enough to sincerely think of Christmas as “Christ’s Mass,” and I can also recognize that this sweater is not a threat to that. Not to my beliefs, not to the little baby Jesus, and not to Christmas.

Lots of things do diminish Christmas, of course. I could be one of those people railing away forever about the commercialization of Christmas, the emphasis on material things and partying and all manner of behavior that has nothing to do with a manger. To me, this is not exactly the same issue as the secularization of Christmas. There’s a difference between choosing to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” and defacing a crèche. There’s a difference between hanging a wreath with no cross and actual blasphemy.

Loads of people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and no, that is not in keeping with the traditional Christian origin tale. But Rudolph and Santa and Frosty aren’t going anywhere and I’m not interested in morphing my religious beliefs into something that seeks to persecute or take joy from others. History is too full of that transgression, and sadly, it endures today. If a non-religious person wants to espouse peace and joy and goodwill more fervently around December 25, and this seasonal sweater company wants to invite them to the holiday party via knitwear, more power to ‘em.

Keeping Christ in Christmas can be lovely when exercised by actually putting Christ first, not anger. When I see people attacking others over secular or mixed-faith celebrations, I want to ask “What would Jesus do?,” but for too many people those have just become words on a bracelet and not a genuine inquiry.

And what of the multitudes of people who don’t celebrate Christmas at all, in any way? Year after year they have to endure this festive societal takeover, and perhaps they feel alienated. Or perhaps someone is part of a family of multiple faiths, or is a proud atheist but wants to put up a tree, or has moved to a place where they’re suddenly in a religious or ethnic minority and feeling especially disenfranchised during the holiday season…which brings us back to the sweater.

Sure, it does bring to mind those “Coexist” bumper stickers that were also made with good intentions and rendered a bit goofy by the passage of time and cynicism. But if there’s ever a time to keep our cynicism just a teensy bit at bay, isn’t this it? Why all the holly jolly hatred?

If someone has a legitimate beef with the religious symbols of faiths that does not celebrate Christmas in its original Christian form, sharing space with crosses and Christmas trees, fine. Don’t wear it, don’t buy it, and re-gift it if you should happen to find one under your tree.

But if you can imagine opening up your sweater to people different from you in one way with whom you still share the common bond of humanity, well…what’s more Christmassy than that?

Pia Glenn is a writer and actress. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

A Hanukkah Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man lights the
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man lights the candles of the fifth night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. MENAHEM KAHANA—AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between the Jewish communities of Jerusalem gave way to a temporary peace

You may have heard of the Christmas truce, when World War I soldiers on both sides of no man’s land left their trenches to chat, play soccer and exchange gifts with each other in the winter of 1914, a century ago this year.

Less well known is the Hanukkah truce of 1954.

That was the temporary respite in tensions between Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community and the city’s other Jewish residents.

At the time–and to this day–some ultra-orthodox residents of the conservative Mea Shearim neighborhood clashed with Jerusalem’s Jewish residents on the weekly Sabbath, a day when they believe Jews are forbidden from performing certain activities, including smoking, using a phone or driving.

In 1954, a series of attacks by ultra-orthodox Jews on drivers or people smoking publicly had put the city on edge, while members of the ultra-Orthodox community continued to protest drivers by taking to streets and parking lots and shouting “Shabbes” (Yiddish for Sabbath) and insults at drivers.

But as Hanukkah approached, as TIME reported in its January 1955 issue, a miracle of sorts occurred. A leading member of the ultra-orthodox community who had just been briefly locked up for his role in recent riots, Rabbi Abraham Blau, called for an end to violence ahead of the holiday.

“If I had my way,” Blau said, according to the TIME report, “every Jew who wishes to stand up against what he believes to be a desecration of his faith would demonstrate with his hands tied behind his back to prove he came in peace.”

Read TIME’s 1955 story about the holiday truce: Hanukkah in Jerusalem

TIME faith

Vatican Report Finds American Nuns are a Graying Workforce

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Nuns pray during a mass in celebration of Pope Benedict XVI at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Feb. 28, 2013. Emmanuel Dunand—AFP/Getty Images

Nuns express "great concern" about declining numbers, average age in mid-70s

American nuns have expressed “great concern” about their aging workforce, according to a Vatican survey released Tuesday that finds nuns in the U.S. are advancing in age and declining in number.

Vatican surveyors sent questionnaires and conducted “sister-to-sister” dialogues at 341 Catholic institutions across the United States. They found that nuns had reached an average age of mid-to-late 70’s, opening up an ever-widening age gap with fresh recruits. The report also noted that the total number of apostolic women, at 50,000, had declined by 125,000 since the the mid-1960s.

“Many sisters expressed great concern during the Apostolic Visitation for the continuation of their charism and mission, because of the numerical decline in their membership,” the Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Religious Women in the United States of America said.

The report also upended expectations that it would take a more critical stance of American nuns for a rising “secular mentality” and “a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” as one Vatican official warned in 2009, Crux reports.

Instead, the report largely praised American nuns for their “dedicated and selfless service.”

 

TIME faith

Exodus: 4 Differences Between Film and Bible

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is not exactly a documentary, so a comparison of the film’s adaptation to Scripture is not the point of the movie. But it can be helpful to understand the underlying poetic truth.

Here are four ways the two Exodus stories diverge.

1. The Bible: Exodus is a story of ethical and political redemption.

The Film: Hebrew slaves are freed, but racial controversy surrounding the film clouded the story’s overall message of liberation. Scott selected white characters as Egyptians and Hebrews in the film. The only visible black characters are other slaves in Pharaoh’s palace who do not appear to be liberated with the Hebrew people.

2. The Bible: God is depicted as a king and man of war, who takes on Pharaoh, the God and King of the Egyptians.

The Film: The God-character is depicted as a child, played by eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews. It is unclear whether he represents God or a figment of Moses’ imagination or an angel or something else. Moses is not sent to Pharaoh by God, but goes on his own. The drama in the film is inter-human, between Moses and Pharaoh than between God and Pharaoh.

3. The Bible: Moses flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave.

The Film: Moses is kicked out of Egypt when Pharaoh realizes Moses is a Hebrew. Moses does appear to kill an Egyptian soldier, but that was in retaliation for the soldier calling Moses a slave. It was not Moses defending an oppressed brother or sister.

4. The Bible: The Pharaoh is unnamed.

The Film: The setting is the reign of Ramses. Hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves are portrayed in the movie, but the actual population of all slaves and of Hebrew slaves is unknown. Scott appears to try to bring the historical setting of the time to life, but the reality is that the “historical” Exodus story is hard to pin down. “There is a deliberate lack of specification [in the Bible],” explains Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School. “Pharaoh is the sort of quintessential oppressive ruler in the Bible, and that is how he is remembered in later literature, so he stands for the oppressor of the moment in a sense.”

TIME faith

10 Things Christians Shouldn’t Do at Christmas

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It's not actually Jesus’ birthday

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Ah, Christmas! “The most wonderful time of the year.”

A time to gather with family and friends and, with smiles on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which of our relatives really, really needs to stop drinking.

A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year.

Such a joyous season!

The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it.

For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we say we celebrate this season.

So, I give you my “10 Things Christians Shouldn’t Do At Christmas.”

As with my other “10 Things” lists (which are linked at the end of this post), this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.

10) Celebrate Consumeristmas

For many people, Christmas starts with standing in line on Thanksgiving Day.

‘Tis the season for mass consumerism.

Regardless of where you personally think Christmas began, Christmas has slowly drifted into the bog of consumer madness.

Like frogs in a pot of slowly boiling water, we never saw it coming.

For Christians, this is particularly problematic because the guy we are celebrating this time of year told us that collecting stuff here on Earth is not the way to follow him. (My apologies to Kirk Cameron whose seasonal movie wants us to believe otherwise.)

9) Forget Those Without Food

Jesus once said that when we feed the hungry we are feeding him.

Anyone want to guess what it means when we ignore the hungry?

How about forgetting about hungry children and their families as we scrape the leftover Christmas ham from our plates into the trash?

Maybe we need to change the name of the season to Gluttonousmas? Too many presents, too much food – too little consideration for those in need.

8) Forget Those Without Shelter

No room at the inn.

One of the key moments in the story Christians celebrate is the moment when Jesus was almost born in the streets of Bethlehem.

Our need to clean up the Christmas story assumes that the innkeeper told them to use the manger but the Bible says no such thing. There was no room at the inn, leaving Mary to place her newborn child in a smelly feeding trough.

For that night they were without shelter.

Throughout his life Jesus would spend his ministry with no place to lay his head.

This time of year we celebrate a homeless man.

Do our actions, do the places we spend our money, honor that?

7) Forget About Immigrant

We three kings from Orient are. . .

Besides sounding like Yoda wrote a Christmas carol, there are a number of things messed up about that line.

First: We don’t actually know how many there were.

Secondly: They were magi, not kings.

Finally: We also do not know where they were really from other than “from the East.”

What we do know is they were foreigners and their revealing of the king’s plans to kill all newborn boys in hopes of putting an end to Jesus turned Jesus’ family into immigrants in Egypt.

Our Christmas story is replete with images of people journeying to new lands. Because of it, Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to embracing immigrants.

6) Miss The Message About Resisting Abusive Power

Mary and Joseph and their family had to flee their homeland because King Herod strong-handedly used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power.

I can guarantee you two things: One, in the house where Jesus grew up, the narrative of why they had to flee to Egypt and of the senseless deaths imposed on other families by the powerful was a story that was told time and time again. Two, the focus on abuse of power in Jesus’ teaching and his constant willingness to confront it was no accident.

Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to confronting those who abuse power.

5) Forget Those Without Presents

If you have two coats give one away.

In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. Coats were just an example – a placeholder if you will.

If you have two Christmas presents give one away.

4) Insist Your Religious Celebration Rule Them All

This time of year far too many Christians remind me of Gollum and his Precious. (A LoTR shout out in a Christian Christmas post! C’mon Peter Jackson, give me some promo love!)

One holiday to rule them all: “We nee-eeds it. They stole it from us!”

Never mind that Jesus was Jewish or that there is a list of other celebrations that occur this time of year, there’s a certain cultural privilege in the air that seems so very un-Christian to me.

You can just about bet that the folks calling out for the dominance of Christmas with shouts about what they think is a “war on Christmas” would be singing a new song if Judaism were the dominant religious culture and this time of year radio stations across the land played Chanukah songs.

Technically, they would be singing a new song – not just metaphorically.

3) Get Mad About People Saying “Happy Holidays”

To those who get upset about folks saying, “Happy Holidays,” rather than, “Merry Christmas”: you know what “holiday” is short for, right?

Holy day.

Do you really have a problem with people calling Christmas a holy day?

Nah. Of course you don’t.

2) Think That It Is Actually Jesus’ Birthday.

Um. So… dang, this is hard.

I’m really sorry to be the one telling you. Um, let’s see.

Remember how when you were growing up the Sunday school teacher told you Christmas was Jesus’ birthday?

Yeah.

Well, um… they lied.

Yeah. Sorry about that.

We don’t actually know when Jesus was born. It was probably in the spring or summer because “the shepherds watched their flocks by night” – something which typically didn’t happen much in the winter in that region. Not to mention they were returning to Joseph’s hometown for a census, which is something that would have probably been done during warmer weather.

Want to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born? Ok.

Want it to actually be on his birthday? Good luck with that.

1) Confuse The Religious Observance With the Secular Holiday.

It may be that December the 25th was picked as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth to compete with or even to adopt the followers of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, which included decorating with evergreens, gift giving and parties.

Hmmm, why does that seem so familiar?

I bring this up to make a simple point.

A lot of our “War on Christmas” problems would rightfully go away if we simply acknowledged that there are two celebrations of Christmas each year.

One is religious and one is not.

Most of this article actually points to the issues that happen when we conflate them.

So, let’s stop doing it.

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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